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    Grindstone 100 Endurance Run - The Long Report

    There was not enough space in the Eat Clean, Run Dirty magazine, and so here it is!

    I knew one day I would run 100 miles, and after experiencing the perfect day at Hellgate 100K in 2020, with many miles left in me, I believed the time had come.  In my mind, I’d planned on my first one being Pinhoti 100, in my home state and nearby the trails my dad took my brothers and I camping. I distinctly remember dragging my pink princess suitcase on single track into the woods where we’d be camping. Obviously, we didn’t go far.  We enjoyed the campfire, tomato soup, nature, and overlooks. Pinhoti seemed like a milder (though let’s be real, nothing is easy about 100 miles!) first 100.  Alas, my husband Mike Fox has been crushing the Lynchburg Ultra Series this year, and the date of PInhoti conflicted with the date of Mountain Masochist. After pacing and crewing Mike and other runners at Grindstone in past years, what with it basically being in my backyard, I could feel the pull of the race. It was destiny, I suppose. At this point, I’d paced several friends in different 100 mile races and studied the sport enough to accept that the most logical way to gain further wisdom was to just do the darn thing.

     

    I was told there was race magic to be had even in 100s, but I’ll warn you now that this story has little to none.  I was fully within my body, feeling it ALL. Carnage is the only word, I feel, that adequately fulfills the description of the race… unfortunately right from start to finish. It was most certainly not my night-day-night, and while my whining was epically horrible, I somehow crossed the finish line at a run, in spite saying I’d stomp my way through it. 

     

    Grindstone 100 starts and ends at Camp Shenandoah, the race course of which is primarily an out-and-back that begins at early evening in the final days of summer. The course boasts upwards of 23,000 feet of climbing (and loss) and traverses across several mountainous trails, many that are technical and some that are highly runnable.

     

    My race began at 5:30 PM in the elite wave start. 8 females were in this wave, and we lined up well behind the elite men.  With the afternoon sun mercilessly beating down on us and no more time to hydrate or second guess our gear, a countdown began and we were off! I totally screamed when I passed by my husband.  My nerves were exploding, cowbells were ringing, and where finally beginning this epic journey and staving off the anticipation collided had simultaneously eft me giddily squaling and also numb to the magnitude of what I’d just started.

     

    Heather Dougherty was a friendly face at the starting line, and we exchanged a few remarks regarding our exposure to the sun and heat as we circled the lake in the first quarter mile.  Beads of sweat were already forming, and I was gradually pulling back more and more to respond to my body’s alarm signals.  I told my quaking mind, “It’s okay, it takes you a little while to find your groove.” Nevertheless, I didn’t want to walk yet, so I smiled and pretended that I was relaxed and bebopping as we passed by spectators.  I’m pretty sure the temperature was in the mid 80’s at the start, and the humidity was most definitely quite dense. 

     

    Within those first 5 miles, my friend Dan Spearin, who years ago when I was racing Promise Land 50K for the first time and under intense treatment for Lyme Disease and Babesia wouldn’t let me drop at mile 13, shared a few miles, some distracting conversation, and some encouraging remarks. We passed through that first aid station dripping sweat, needing bottles topped off, and prepared for the first major ascent up Elliott’s Knob.

     

    Once we turned off the winding, technical single track, it was a seemingly vertical climb on a loose gravel road to the fire tower, where we would turn around and take a left hand turn onto another single track trail. Males from later waves were passing by now, but again, I assured myself of my goals: 1) finish 2) finish in time for bedtime and 3) wait to race until mile 70.

     

    Every now and then, I’d stop my hands on knees climbing (and pause from the wishing I had poles here), turn around, and focus on my breath.  The sun was setting and the nearly full moon was rising. I wish I’d snapped a photo, because the view was a beautiful distraction from the grind already at foot. Though I’d hoped to summit Elliott’s Knob before darkness descended, I was only around 5 minutes behind that goal.  I walked through the overgrown brush to the metal fence perimeter of the tower, touched it, and was happily putting the first of 7 significant climbs in the past.

     

    I fell in step with Sarah Hodder, a Grindstone veteran, but we were quickly swarmed by men in a hurry to fly over the loose rocks in that steady descent into Dry Branch aid station. Wouldn’t you know it that my taped up ankle succumbed to rolling multiple times, which were quite painful due to the obvious camber of the trail! I hobbled it off, whimpering and telling myself I needed to proceed with care to prevent more of that in the future. I”ll go ahead and tell you, my ankle got into gear and didn’t give me another issue the remainder of the race! We continued gingerly running down this improving section of trail until all of a sudden, Sarah screamed from behind mel I was so scared she’d been bitten by a snake or something! I ran back to her and asked what happened. She was clutching her foot screaming “it’s biting me on my foot!” It turned out to be a swarm of yellow jackets, and suddenly everyone around me was yelling out from getting stung.  “Run!!!!” And it was like a new race had started.  I managed to avoid being stung, and luckily no one around us had allergies to bee venom, but my husband is anaphylactic, and I got the feeling he probably did not have his epipen, so no way in hell he’d be allowed to pace me on this section on the way back. It wasn’t planned anyway, but things do evolve as races go on, and I stored that away to share at mile 20.

     

    Shortly after the bee stings, we descended into Dry Branch, refilled fluids, grabbed some snacks, and began the God-awful descent up Crawford Mountain. Seriously, fuck that mountain both ways.  The ascent was not technical but essentially the same grade of steepness as Elliott’s at times. I really wish I had trekking poles here, and again, I was huffing and puffing, turning around to release my hamstrings, and watching everyone basically leave me… bye Sarah.  I tried not to think about how I was 6th, as I’d been reminded the race doesn’t really unfold until mile 70, but I couldn’t help but weigh my placement with my equally demoralizing rate of perceived exertion only 15 miles into this beast and wonder how to regain contact with easy movement.  That’s what the first 70 miles were supposed to be!  

     

    God sends angels. In real life too, but I find them on the trails in the form of aid station support, crew, and fellow racers. This time my friend Corey Gray had reached me, starting 20 minutes behind me, and had already caught me around mile 17. My knee jerk reaction was to say… already? But I managed to avoid the negative self-talk for like another 5 minutes.  Honestly, Corey was a safe space for me to share how absolutely miserable and overexerted I was feeling. It was nearly 11:00 PM, which is wayyyy past my bedtime, and I couldn’t go easier than I was going. Once we got our “ugh” off our chests, and I shared I’m going to convince Mike to let me drop, we chatted about his daughter running cross-country and distracted ourselves from the misery.  He took a sudden tumble behind me but quickly bounced back up. We were in a finally flat section and running fairly easily, crossing the road and spending a couple more miles on the trails before pulling ourselves up the steepest single track and onto the grassy road that leads you up to the first crew-accessible aid station: Dowells Draft.

     

    Nighttime contrasting with the blazing lights of headlamps and twinkle lights was a bit disorienting. It was noisy, people were cheering, I saw Sarah receiving aid, and I was pushing through the tunnel of people, desperate to make contact with Mike.  If I mentioned dropping upon seeing him, I can’t remember. I do remember telling him about the bees and chastising him for not having his epipen.  He sat me down immediately, remarked on the conditions and how he saw steam rising off of runners, lovingly served me broth and Mountain Dew. We changed my shoes because I had hot spots forming on the back of my heels.  Corey plopped down next to me and Mike served him aid, too! Mike takes his crew role very seriously, closely following the 10 page document I’d written explaining my hopes, expectations, dos and don’ts specific to me.

     

    Suddenly, I see Sarah before me.  She said she wanted to wait for me, and I said that’s great! I’d love to run with you, but I am not quite ready. A couple of minutes later she was shivering. We were all wet from sweat and the humidity. She said she was cold and needed to go. I didn’t blame her at all!  Mike recommended Corey and I get started together, but when the time comes, leave the other (he said that to both of us).  I was feeling in a much better headspace as Corey and I headed to the relatively gentle and non-technical ascent to Hankey and Lookout Mountain, the next aid station was 7-8 miles away. Breathing and ease, that was the focus of this section of trail, and so I stayed on Corey’s tail, and we gradually caught a few people as we climbed up to Lookout Mountain.  There wasn’t much conversation, and the rising cacophony of crickets chirping along with the occasional hoot of an owl reminding us that we are currently nocturnal.  Once we reached that aid station, I was thrilled to see some of my favorite people! It me!!!! Pump me up! Tell me I’m doing great! Feed me!  I can’t remember the food, but I remember leaving there feeling so refreshed. I pulled out my headphones to trigger the dopamine I direly needed to get me through the night, told Sarah to hop in with me, and took off because I was eager to see my man at North River Gap in 7 miles, the trails being rocky and then smooth.  I was finally in a groove, though I could hardly call it race magic; I wasn’t clipping by miles. I was mustering my legs over the jagged, craggy rocks and wow, after the first mile, I didn’t see a single soul. I was entirely alone. A first for night racing.  Oddly, I was at peace with it, when ordinarily I feel hypervigilant and on edge.

     

    I was thrilled to cross the river and head towards the aid station, and as I descended on the road to the aid station, again, it was about coming in looking happy, relaxed, but focused.  You never know who is seeing you, and while this is mile 37 of the race, what I do can influence or motivate the rest of the field. I found Mike in the middle of the bright, cheerful aid station at North River Gap, where a blow up unicorn was pointing to the trailhead for the 7 mile, 3000 foot climb up Chestnut. As I sat in my chair and took inventory of my surroundings, I saw quiet crews, and very few runners.  I asked Mike where the runners were because I hadn’t seen one in front of me in the last 6 miles.  Apparently there were a bunch ahead of me that had just left, and the affirmation I wasn’t the only person still in this event was encouraging.  I drank more broth (scalded my mouth, so we added water), got my trekking poles in hand, and impatiently waited for the flash to capture a picture with the blow up unicorn before taking off! I tried not to think about the 65 miles remaining or the fact that I had around 30 miles of race before seeing my crew (and pacers again).  One bite at a time, this elephant.

     

    I know this climb fairly well. I live in Bridgewater, which is 22 minutes from North River Gap parking lot by car.  I’ve run up chestnut at least 10 times by this point. It’s steep and filled with varying sizes of rocks, loose and packed dirt.  The views would be spectacular during the day, though the starry sky and nearly full moon were a nice alternative.  At times, the trail was very narrow, briars scraping my arms and legs, and I’d hold my poles instead of dragging them through the brush. These miles went oooooon. Getting to certain turns and milestones on the trail. Holy shit, I have underestimated the painstakingly slowness of these miles in comparison to my training runs and past race efforts. I’d wished I’d written some mantras for how slow I felt, because “relentless forward progress” doesn’t quite scratch the surface as my past and current ultrarunning selves collided.

     

    There was a man ahead of me that I swear had stadium light beams emitting from his waist that illuminated my hallucinations of within-sight aid stations.  Brief moments of hope passed before me, and then I’d realize that they weren’t real. Curse that man and his hallucination-eliciting lights! I fell in behind him and some men, but their trek pulls were too slow, and I was hungry. I needed that aid station.  Gels weren’t really sitting well with me anymore, and I needed sustenance. I popped electrolyte tables, some peanut M&M’s and cheezits, but I needed more minerals, more glutamine (which I know soothes the epithelial lining of intestines and enhances absorption of electrolytes and nutrients). So I passed by. One of them I knew from Hellgate 2020, and he heckled me a bit, saying it took me longer to pass him this time! That stinker.  I wished him well and didn’t see him again. By this point a couple of the leaders, including our friend Mclane Grow had passed, and I was grateful only a little more single track remained because sharing the trail in two directions is UNFUN! 

     

    Finally off the chestnut climb and heading towards Little Bald, I thought the aid station would be at the turn, but it wasn’t.  A brief pity party after having sucked down my remaining fluids, and then I’d ask other leaders how far to the next aid station from here.  It was about a mile and a half longer, but downhill and flat, so I was running some! Yay running! The fog was a descending heavy blanket around us, and our lights reflected the molecules of water in the air instead of our path. Luckily, jeep road and therefore less technical, though there was the choice between shoe-sucking mud puddles or scraping against thorny briars. I chose briars.  The scars are healing great FYI; I surprise myself by wearing them with pride. 

     

    I reached Little Bald to find 4th place female, Ash Walsh, refilling her bottles! Boy, am I so happy to see those volunteers. I ate grilled cheese and drank broth as I refilled my bottles.  I won’t lie, it’s the little wins like pulling out my bottles before approaching the aid station to be efficient with my time that made me feel like I was doing all I could to be successful.  This next section was awesome in comparison to what I’d put behind me. I focused on pulling through powerfully with my poles, jogging when possible, and I was passing others quickly. I liked how these miles clicked by. Happiness. It was time to ascend Reddish, in 4th now, and excited to be turning around.  I saw more and more runners on their return trip, including Heather and Christine! Cheerful hellos and encouragement really lift me. Yes, we are competing, but we need each other. It’s a hard thing we are doing!

     

    This night I felt was eternal; I’m not a night owl. Rarely, actually… never do I pull all-nighters. Not even in college, where I was the grandma hitting the sack at 8:30 because I had music theory right at 8:00 AM! I co-slept with my babies as a means to survive the early days of motherhood.  What I’m saying is that making it through the night without crashing is huge! HUGE! Yay for another victory along the way. 

     

    Finally, summiting Reddish Knob, and I was kissed by the most heavenly daybreak. It was a deep, rich red, and I did need to have a human, non-race moment to soak it in, my unintentional, yet impeccably-timed gift for pushing through a terribly challenging first half of the race.  So much for keeping the first half easy, but I’ll take this gift and cherish it forever.

     

    Selfies having been acquired in spite of fumbling with my headlamp, it was time to proceed to Briery Branch and turn this shit show around. This aid station went without a hitch, though I forgot how long the distance was between Briery Branch and Reddish Knob. The peanut M&M’s were probably my best fuel investment for this race, Picky Bars, the worst. I didn’t eat one. I remembered liking them before, but I just couldn’t force myself to eat them this training cycle. More broth, Ash Walsh shows up and asks me how I’m doing! I felt great, so I of course shared that and that it was my first 100, so yay for being halfway!  This seemed to surprise her, and I informed her that I lived nearby so my comfort on the course was fair, even though the course totally sucks! I also shared that I’d read her blog on Grindstone previously and remarked that I hoped she found redemption in this race, which based on the time, seemed to be very much in the realm of possibility. 

     

    Then Sarah Hodder trickles into the aid station, as I’m sipping away on my broth. I’m good to go, it’s time to get moving! I run out of the aid station, and strike a power hike on the other side of the curve. My husband has taught me many things. Racing is just a part of me, even if I’m not a pro or a top pick to win these things. My music is going (let me tell you, my headphones DID have race magic or God’s blessing because they never died and still had juice for a 1 hour run a week after the race. Wow.) and I am cruising past people. The views are incredible, as the sun is just peeking over the far away mountains and looking to an entirely cloudless sky, and I slow to a hike to grab some photos and videos.  I recall in my mind the mostly non-technical, gradual downhill stretch ahead of me and dial in my effort. This should be easy pacing, but I also need to get off the ridge before the sun begins beating down. While the fog had lifted, the heat was the next challenge; solve them as they come, I’d been told.

     

    These miles, thankfully, clicked away. Morning bathroom routines went without a hitch (I hadn’t practiced with immodium), though I did announce to one man coming by that I was stopping so that he’d pass me by already.  Check and check! Some open bald sections lent themselves to full access to sun exposure. I kept my eyes set on the next throw of shade I could shirk to without rushing. I am a vampire, and oh how I wish sunlight just revealed my sparkles to indicate I was a supernatural predator.  Damn you, Twilight!

     

    I reached the Little Bald aid station around 8:15, and it was indeed warmer already. My stomach was subtly alerting me that it was unhappy. I asked for broth, grilled cheese, and Todd, aid station chief, gave me some Tums to take now and later. I was off quickly for another mile and a half before turning back onto Chestnut. 57.5 miles into this, and I’d realized now I was in for a long day of suffering.  Break it up, I coach myself, get to Mike. Again, favorite race-day mantra since mile 15: just get to Mike. As I was leaving, the gentleman checking numbers told me that from mile 45 to mile 57, I’d moved up 20 places, Wow! While my knee-jerk reaction was hell yeah, my subconscious tugged on me a bit, reminding me to dial in my effort because it was not time to really push yet. 

     

    “Descending” Chestnut encompassed many steep, narrow trails, loose rocks, and now, the blazing sun. My hydration had seemed to hold up in spite of the oppressive heat and dewpoint the night before, but question marks were exploding all over my brain.  I remembered sage advice to take problems on as they come, and it wasn’t an issue yet, so I drank and focused on moving down the 7 mile, 3,000 foot climb without destroying my quads or rolling my ankle.  I was successful in this, but as I summited Grindstone Mountain (the last rolling climb before the descent into North River Gap), I really got overwhelmed with how painstakingly slow I was moving over the rocks.  I can fly down descents, unless it’s technical. It must be my self-preservation because I don’t take a lot of risks and therefore don’t fall often. Right before the last short but very steep climb up to Grindstone Mountain, I came upon Andy Jones Wilkins bebopping around. I asked him if he could put me on the other side of it already, and he laughed and carried on his way.  But I was serious.  Atop Grindstone Mountain, I found myself pulling my poles along and staring at a giant blue construction crane and swearing it was real! Maybe there had been trail work on the mountain - I don’t know!  My first legitimate hallucination, and I thought hallucinations were only for night time. The lack of sleep was finally catching up, I suppose. I was in uncharted territory, setting a record for the amount of time I’d been awake at 27 hours already since the morning before. 

     

    I was relieved to see a few people on the trail clapping, and I was like “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad that’s over.” “ I’m never running this trail again.” Finally the trail had “flattened” out and was merely technical, and I was running, but walking over the mini bridges.  I heard Daryl, my crew before I saw him, which is hilarious as he is 6’8”, but then I saw him and he was guiding me back to my seat. I’d done it: 30 miles to get back to Mike. 

     

    Mile 65+ (hovering at my distance PR) and with more climbing and time on feet than I’d ever done before. I felt wiped. I clutched a gel ice pack against my face and body while Mike changed my socks and shoes again (pair #3). Sophie Speidel came up to me and told me I was doing amazing, and now only a 50K++ left to go. Unfortunately, my left hamstring had been tightening more and more in the descent from Chestnut, and I felt a little too beat up to be thinking “Hell Yeah, 50K to go!”, but in spite of my whimpering, I wasn’t quitting. It wasn’t a thought in my mind. She directed my attention to a person lying down on a cot.  “You are in 3rd place. She hasn’t moved in awhile, and I don’t think she’s getting back up. 2nd place was here for 45 minutes, and you look way better than her when she was here. Buck up. You are strong.” Sophie is tough as nails. She keeps it real; matter-of-fact encouragement, no sugar coating or ego petting, just facts and tough love. So much was happening here while I was taking in the current race environment: phone attached to external battery and placed in baggie, new bottles and snacks, sunscreen on face, female-specific wipes, body glide, new buff, no new shirt, that comes at mile 80, and sunscreen.  I quickly ate a plate of potatoes, drank broth, drank my pre-mixed MUDWTR iced coffee, and some Mountain Dew. My motivation was back. It was time to get out of here.

     

    Sophie snapped some photos for my “fan club” (I laughed!) as Jonathan, my pacer from mile 65-80, and I took off down the road at a strong hiking pace. We jogged along as I recapped him on how the night had transpired, asked how his week had been (we are both reading specialists for the same county, so lots of things to discuss), all during this non-technical and fairly flat section of the course. As we began ascending the rocky (larger rocks) trail up towards Lookout, my stomach began to rebel like I’ve never felt before.  Rumbles in the jungle!!!! My heart rate was low, but I felt alarm bells sounding. I stopped for the first time, leaned over (felt great on my hamstrings) and rested my head on the butts of my trekking poles, breathing deeply.  I think the hot sun pelting down on us through the skimpy shade of the trees was escalating the work placed on my body to digest.  My body couldn’t cool and digest at the same time.  I tried not to get overwhelmed by the long day ahead of me in light of my current situation. For the most part, I did alright.  We’d count 50 trekking pulls, then pause to breathe.  Occasionally, I sat down on a rock and just put my head in between my knees.  These were my slowest miles yet, arguably the slowest of the entire race, and my new game plan was just to ease my way up to Lookout Mountain so that I’d have something to work with coming down to Dowells Draft.

     

    I remembered my husband at Grindstone 2017, how great he looked at North River Gap but then his death march into Dowells draft later. I immediately felt remorse for not being sympathetic enough to his needs, honestly to any of my pacer’s needs in past experiences, and that had nothing to do with my current pacer’s behavior; he was wonderful, patient, and encouraging. Also paid very close attention to my need for eating/drinking. These seem to be the quotes for 2021, but “you don’t know what you don’t know” and “once you know better, you do better.” Noted and filed away. Meanwhile, I was on an entirely new learning curve: relentless forward progress looks and feels very different in 100 miles than in other races. It’s slow. Slower than slow. Time has all but stopped.  Occasionally, a gust of wind would make the sweat feel cool on my skin, and we’d find pockets of denser shade to rest and catch breaths or simply enjoy moving through with less oppression. Ultimately, I was grappling mightily with calming my stomach. Somehow, I knew it would improve. I needed to lower my core body temperature, to lay down, and to eat/digest without moving. 

     

    Before we arrived at Lookout Mountain at mile 71, I actually clocked an 18:15 mile! My heartrate had stayed in the 120’s, even a 119 average, which was good so that my body could digest!  Much improved and primed perfectly to take in food at this aid station, the CATs aid station! Seeing my friends was such a welcome sight after that significant battle up the mountain. I asked if anyone had a blanket I could lie down on, could I have ice, and some grilled cheese?

    As I lay there, Jonathan brought me ice, which went down my sports bra, under my run buff on my forehead, and Becca brought me 3 pieces of grilled cheese, which was excruciating difficult to eat slowly because it was so good. I think they also brought me broth. Becca handed me two packets of pepto bismol, which I never took and probably should have, and then opened up her bag of running fuel and asked if I wanted powders, gels, whatever, No more gels for me; I took nothing.  Too much sugar had rotted my stomach . We dumped out any electrolyte fluids and refilled with water. Actually, we didn’t do that. Jonathan did that. I’d take salty snacks, M&Ms, and electrolyte tablets in between aid stations from here on out.  I had hoped for a 10 minute rest; that’s what I’d shared as I entered the aid station with whatever glee looks like when you’re entirely depleted.  However, my blissful rest was cut short as I hear Andy Jones Wilkins’ voice resounding throughout the woods. Becca whispered that there’s a chick with him. It was Ash! Drat!

     

    The next couple of moments were a whirlwind of movement, but I rolled over, hopped up, whispered to Jonathan that we need to go, and we were running! We ran for around 200 steps up a climb, and melting ice dripped down from my bra and buff. Ah, it felt so nice. I wanted to be out of sight before I fell back into a power-hike, and we were successful. It’s wild: the time would fly by, but the miles were frozen in time. Jonathan would remind me gently “Nelle, it’s been 30 minutes and you haven’t sipped anything; Nelle’s it’s been an hour, pick something and take three bites.”  Whimpering, I did it, and it was hard to trust my stomach wouldn’t rebel again.  Amidst those challenges, I’d point to a skull hiding in the logs, and a tractor sitting on the side of the trail.  It was fairly amusing and a welcome distraction from my current quality of life. Mile 77, I began feeling a sense of dread with the duration between aid stations.  We were moving, and looking back, the pace was GREAT after what I’d just recovered from, but I was concerned about how close Ash was.  

     

    Finally, at mile 78, as I was throwing a fairly significant pity party that would soon resemble a toddler’s temper tantrum, Ash came shooting by, carrying, but not using her poles. Was I doing this wrong? Did I make the wrong call? She is an experienced ultrarunner; this is my first. She’s got her own battle she’s waging out here, her second time on the course.  She’s killing it.  We mentally worked through how to not let her passing me take the remaining wind I had out of my sails. But she bolted by and disappeared, giving me a taste of my own medicine.

     

    I asked how much longer until the aid station, and Jonathan said not much further. I needed finite information.  Everything seemed far! I’d lost all perspective. He shared that it was about 2 miles, at which point, I replied that’s not a little bit further! I started to cry, and I dropped my poles and stomped off. Full-fledge toddler. Embarrassing.  We got back going, and he reminded me that I’m moving at a great clip, just keep going. So I did. I’d whimper here and there, but the jokes were gone for the remainder of this section, which I ran much of, with intermittent hiking poles. I did say I did something right because I was running in the final 25 miles to go.  Finally, we reached the trailhead that leads to the Dowells Draft aid station. I saw a person taking numbers, and when I reached that person, he/she was nowhere to be found. Yay hallucinations. Mile 80 by 3:15 PM, 21 hours, 15 minutes into this monster with  22 miles to go.

     

    Jonathan and I ran up to that aid station, where I came upon my happy crew and Caroline… with pizza! Yum! I immediately sat down, at which point Jonathan was off and refilling my bottles.  I changed shirts quickly while Mike stuffed my back. Caroline was bringing me more glorious ice for my buff and my sports bra. Someone handed me a pizza slice, and I was surprised to find myself ravenously biting into it and needing to slow myself down.  Jonathan had made a list of needs prior to this aid station, and great news, the Arnica cream had been located, and after eating a full slice, I was slathering that on the back of my left knee and atop my tiring hip flexors. I asked how far ahead of me Ash was now, and they said she wasted no time getting in and out of the aid station, just refilling bottles. Damn. I was jealous, but ultimately, this was my first one! I just needed to stay upright at this point. I say that, and then suddenly there’s a female that had snuck up from way behind, and I was again, doing my best to sneak as we hustled out of the aid station. Jonathan’s pacing was done, and now it was Daryl’s turn.

     

    The single track off Dowell’s is so steep going down, and I hobbled my way before looking up and see this monstrously steep section - how did I forget this from training camp? Good God! I powered to the top of it and again, head on the butt of trekking poles with long, deep pulls of breaths.  I needed to separate myself from the pressure I was unnecessarily placing on myself so that I could keep my cool.  We were run-walking again, gradually ascending, descending, and crossing the road, back where it was flat, back where Corey Gray face-planted.  Seemed like forever ago.  We caught a couple of men here, some that I’d leap-frogged with throughout the race, some I hadn’t seen yet. I pushed up this climb, and the effort was overwhelming, the sun beating down on me as I climbed up the side of the mountain. This was Crawford Mountain, and she’s a real bitch, coming and going. 

     

    Again, I was being nudged gently to drink, to eat. Had I not just eaten a slice of pizza? Was that enough? Apparently, time was passing by fast and still, so slowly!  I felt like I was constantly forcing myself to eat but really struggling to do it. I did eat a 100 calorie bag of peanut M&M’s again, so that’s good! However, my cognitive tolerance for struggle was rapidly unraveling, and I began panicking about the long way to go still with such high temperatures.  Did I mention the high was 87º? Yet, I’d passed several men, and in spite of throwing myself periodically onto several rocks and sobbing, Daryl noted that they weren’t catching me.  That was encouraging, but still, staying in the pain cave and focusing there was very difficult.   He’d calmly state that yes, we were still climbing, but no, we weren’t there yet. “You’re doing it.” “Yes, it’s hard.” He affirmed every thought I had except: “this is never going to fucking end.” “It feels that way, but it will. You’re making progress.” I nearly cried, no actually I did cry when a mile clocked in at 27+ minutes. And he’d remind me, “Nelle, we just climbed 2000 feet. This is a tough climb.”
    At one I told Daryl, I’d like to be airlifted out of here, the only other logical alternative is to full send myself off the mountainside. Joking, but in that kind of suffering, I find myself remembering 10 centimeter, 6 plus hours of endless, fruitless labor, and I just want someone to put me under until it was over. After 27 hours of labor, crowning as my epidural went in and grunting heavily into my doctor’s arms, I finally had a baby.  That’s what I’m remembering. All over body aches and pain, entire musculo-skeletal tension, ebbing and flowing, catching my breath and having it taken away.  Am I a masochist for finally finding an experience that mimics my experience of labor? Yup.

     

    I’m sure one thing my pacers learned is that I don’t want to hear we are “almost” there. It’s so relative when the challenge of the next aid station, milestone, turn, switchback feels endlessly away. I certainly learned that and had failed to anticipate just how hard the agonizing of sitting with relentless, SLOW, progress would feel. However, a century later, we have arrived on the ridge, and I am seeing toddler-like leaf humans hanging on stems of larger plants. I point them out to Daryl, and then we are descending. Down, down, down, steepest of down, nearly as steep as Elliott’s.  By this point, I’m approaching 24 hours of movement, and ugh. I’d hoped I’d be closer to the finish than this! So finally, my body can do less work, but I can’t coordinate my body effectively enough to really run much. So sobbing and driving my poles in front of me, I zero-heartedly descend, secretly wanting to forward roll like a Ninja-Turtle. Ninja Turtles forward roll, right?

     

    Finally, I can hear cowbells and cheering somewhere below where we are, and the trail is evolving into a gentler descent, and so we are running, click, click, click, past the gate, and into Dry Branch around 5:45 PM.  Daryl remarked that we were over 24 hours, and he claims he celebrated silently for me. I found Mike, walked up, hoping he’d put his arms around me and let me cry. I just sobbed as he ushered me to my seat, saying everyone’s been crying here. Sophie came up to me and reminded me that 100’s aren’t fun. That’s not why we do them. Yes, yes, I realize that. I am questioning everything now. But at the aid stations I wasn’t throwing down “I quit!”, so at least there’s that?! I eat half a slice of pizza in my lovely chair, and bravely request pieces of quesadilla for the trail.  Taking more food was mandatory per my crew.  It was time to go, even though by the absence of it in discussion, 2nd and 3rd place were far out of grasp. Former 2nd (now 3rd) was hanging on with all she had. I’ve gotta hand it to these women. We were toughing it out, even if some of us weren’t going down without more f bombs than a sailor drunk on rum.

     

    I was up and moving toward the final climb to Elliott’s Knob, where the yellow jackets and ankle rolling rocks lay waiting for me.  As I was leaving, I was told the 5th female had arrived. Dammit! All the whining and crying alternated with the wimpiest power-hiking was enough for the men I’d passed but not enough to get away from her. It was time to really dig. Had I struck rock, because the course was full of them. Only 1500ish feet.  87 miles in, approaching single digits.  Sophie said no more than 4.5 miles to the intersection with Elliott’s Knob fire road.  And so, we were power-hiking, but stronger than Crawford, not with renewed energy or refreshment, but with the final embers that glow before finally going out.  Mentally, I was a lot stronger through here, playing my music aloud (all the explicit stuff, of course, I find it highly cathartic).  Staying present, being in a race for 4th, knowing that the race for 5th wasn’t far behind, was at times overwhelming. I distinctly remember having pushed for awhile, and all those overwhelming feelings came to a head, I put my head on my poles again and contemplated just sitting on the side of the trail waiting for the two women behind me to pass me before picking myself up and getting to the finish with my tail in between my legs.  No, I wasn’t going down like that! It would suck getting passed after the immense suffering all day to be where I was, so onward.  We crested over 90 miles, at which point Daryl claims he did another internal celebration for me.  Finally, always finally in these races, the trail evened out, and optical illusions caused by hope and fading daylight seemed to put the trailhead constantly just beyond reach. Finally, I asked 

    Daryl how much longer because it had been 4.5 miles since Dry Branch, and he looked at the fancy map on his fancy watch.  The trailhead wasn’t yet visible. So I carry on for a couple more minutes before stopping, asking again, and whipping my own phone out.  Looked like just under half a mile. I was eager to get to the final aid station, with around 4 miles to go to get there. Possibly 75 minutes? In spite of panicking about the moving trailhead, we carried on, powering through. Daryl, after I regained composure, shared that my climb was inspiring, that he thought he wasn’t going to have to work out here today. Finally, some humor, but also an effort in these later miles to hang my hat on, which is really good because coming down Elliott’s did have me in toddler mode.  Between potty breaks and unnecessary streamers (seriously, the course is overmarked!), I hobbled down this shit show of a descent for about a mile before I praised the trailhead that would lead us down into Falls Hollow.  

     

    We pulled our headlamps out. The twilight was casting shadows, and personally, I did not have the time or energy to deal with stumbling at mile 92.  Parts of the trail are fairly nice. I’m clocking 14-16 min miles here when suddenly, my light is blinking warning signs saying it’s running low on battery. I do recall Mike having charged it, and Daryl was wearing my back-up light.  We traded since I was leading the way ahead of my pacers. I like to be in front anyway, so that pacer was a non-issue.  It was at this point I needed to think about how I’d enter that aid station. I’d been on my feet for nearly 27 hours at this point, I didn’t feel great, but dammit I was going to finish and do all I could to not get caught by anyone in the last miles! I hadn’t seen (or heard) a soul other than Daryl from Dry Branch to Falls Hollow.  I told Daryl to text the group that I needed Mountain Dew in a soft flask, water in the other. No stopping, no chair, be ready for a flying hand-off, to swipe the key from Mike before we took off. We were a half mile away, and I was feeling the magnetic pull of the aid station, letting it take me, but then my heart would force me to slow, even though my average was 128 BPM, anything over fat burning was too high, not enough glycogen to transcend. 

     

    I picked back up as I heard the cowbell, and we were cruising in. I whipped out my half-full bottles, as I had failed to hydrate well in those final 30 miles, but oh well, poppeding my new ones in.  I took a drag of Mountain Dew. Mmmmm good. Surprisingly good. We were cheering and rolling, as Mike fell in stride next to me, crossing the road, hopping onto the single track, and giving the appearance I was crushing the end.  Mike and I were crossing the railroad tracks as some horn went off, and oh my gosh, it scared me to death. No trains though, we’re good. 

     

    Shortly thereafter, we were hiking and climbing up, and I was taking it in okay, powering through with the poles. Mike hadn’t seen me use them, so I think it was interesting for him to see me using something new to us both after many shared runs.  Not 5 minutes though later, my tolerance for climbing was at the threshold, and my joking approach to “Oh look another climb” had been reduced to whimpers.  Mike just kept by my side. I’d ask him if he was proud of me, and he said “I already told you that. Of course I am!” We reached the gravel road and continued to climb. Ugh, more climbing. The embers hanging on on that last climb fizzled out with a final puff of smoke. Here came the death march. No more digging, just one step at a time. I saw a woman with white hair waiting at the left turn to take us down single track towards the camp, but actually it was just a white blaze on a tree. I remarked on it, and I don’t really remember the exchange. It was past 8:00 PM, and I was craving sleep something fierce,

     

    The trail was runnable at times but very rugged at others. These miles crept by, 16+ minute miles up until the very last one. We crossed creeks and I struggled with my footing many times. Finally, there it is again: finally, we reached the bathrooms where we’d turn right, away from the straight shot to the finish line with around 2 miles remaining. Two freaking miles. Oh, how it went on, even though it was slightly downhill! We power-hiked. I started looking back, more frequently than I had on Crawford and Elliott’s final climb, and Mike called me on it. Are we on the right trail? I don’t remember this rope. Is that the finish line? Oh gosh, how much further until the finish? Joking about rocks, then crying about rocks, joking about climbs, then crying about climbs, joking about the trail never ending, you know what’s coming next.I spent so much energy crying, but I was making an effort to keep it light with the jokes, but we all know there’s an ounce of truth in jokes, and the truth found me fast. I began losing my absolute shit as we turn right, away from the like, away from everything. Some of the streamers in this section were not reflective, and it was hard for me to see, so I was asking again, are we on the trail? Where the fuck is the finish line, dammit!!!!

     

    By God’s grace, a turn left took us down the weird “trail” that rolled down and then turned sharply towards the lake. As we crested the slant of the of grass bank, I saw a light bobbing in the woods, moving faster than I was.  I told Mike we had to run. I wasn’t getting caught and moving to 5th with a half mile to go! And so, we were sprinting at a 9:45 pace. Oh my GOD, it was finally really almost OVER. Running, running away from that light behind me and towards the finish,  and Mike pointed a directed me to the grassy field I’d started on, as I carried my poles in hand, I hauled ass and crossed that damn finish line.  Cheering around me in the darkness.  Daryl walked up to me and I just leaned into him saying “Oh my God.” A female voice says “Yay, Nelle!”, and I look up like a buffoon and blind Amanda Womack with my headlamp, My friend had been out on the course at Falls Hollow the night prior, this evening, and came to see me finish. So grateful. 

     

    My whole crew was waiting for me. I was ushered to a chair and presented with my buckle, my top finisher half zip, a Klean Kanteen finisher item.  I refused to get back up for a finisher photo, so I pointed to the banner from my chair and smiled.  

     

    The next finisher was a male, whose sister I was racing, I later learned her name was Claire Lorentzen.  Apparently my push to Elliott’s Knob put me ahead of her coming into at Falls Hollow by 25 minutes, and she finished 5th in 28:48.  Christine O’Gormon was 3rd with 27:53.  It was strenuous, immensely challenging day. Walking to the car, climbing the stairs up to my bedroom, showering then bathing in epsom salts were unsurprisingly taxing.  I took Tylenol PM and happily, yet painfully climbed into my bed. I was home in time for bed, a little late, but before midnight was fairly respectable. Waking up in the morning, I felt mixed emotions: pride but also questioning my ability to suffer well. It was brutally ugly, The ugliest, saddest, weakest sides of me were the ones my friends saw. They were incredible. How blessed I was to wage this multi-stage war between myself and this course with them in the wings as my second because the course wasn’t my enemy; I was.  

     

    My First 100 Mile Race

    28 hours 12 minutes, 101.85 miles, 23,000 feet, 16:36 average pace

    4th Female, 41st Overall

     

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